Sunday, March 01, 2009
"A Wayfarer's Journey: Listening to Mahler": Instant play on Netflix
Netflix offers for instant viewing (to subscribers) the PBS experience “A Wayfarer’s Journey: Listening to Mahler”, written and directed by Ruth Yorkin Drazen, with Kahtleen Chalfant and Richard Dreyfuss (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”) narrating and often reading Mahler’s letters.
Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Curtis Symphony orchestra, in a documentary that walks through Mahler’s life. In the first hour or so, all of the music comes from the first four symphonies and the Songs of a Wayfarer. The middle symphonies, including the famous Adagietto in the Fifth Symphony, come into the narrative, and the Ninth Symphony is excerpted at the end. The narrative makes the interesting point that the hesitating repeated notes that open the first movement of the Ninth represent a heart arrhythmia which Mahler already had. I have one to, and think little of it (it is controlled by atenolol).
The narrative emphasizes that Mahler viewed music as an experience of “the moment.” Maher also said that he does not compose so much as he feels that he is composed. The film covers Mahler’s music an healing, both for the elderly and for children recovering from cancer treatment.
The film also covers Mahler’s mandatory conversion to Catholicism in 1897 and a condition of employment as a conductor, but in his own mind he prayed only to one God, not a trinity. Nevertheless, he wrote the Resurrection Symphony and later the Faustian Symphony of a Thousand (not covered in the film) as a kind of all-inclusive view; the oratorio-like Eighth Symphony is a good complement to operas (on similar subject matter) by Boito, Gounod, Berlioz, and even Mozart.
Much of his middle period music (the Sixth symphony) relates to his marriage to Alma and the loss of his daughter (leading to the song cycle Kindertotenlieder). Mahler did a lot of his composing in a one room hut on a lake in Austria.
Much of the early part of the film focuses on the most winsome passages from the First Symphony, such as the middle section of the slow movement, and then the second subject of the finale, and then the “He Shall Reign” passage near the end of the Finale.
A pensive passage from Mahler's one movement Piano Quartet in A Minor, his only chamber work, also appears.
I got to know much of Mahler’s music in high school. On Saturday nights, WGMS in Washington those days played a “Festival of Music” and once in a while played a Mahler Symphony. In those days, Bruno Walter was the only major conductor, and the symphonies 6-8 did not come into common performance until the 1960s after Leonard Bernstein’s support. More than any other composer’s music, passages from the early Mahler symphonies recall some of the wondrous and traumatic events of my high school to college transition: the Honor Society, the long “prom” trip to Mount Washington, the intense summer friendships, the William and Mary expulsion, the NIH hospitalization, the settle-down at GWU, then graduate school, and finally, ironically, the Army. During all this period (encompassing the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, finally leading to Watergate) I got to know Mahler, almost every note. Specific passages recall specific personal incidents, in fact. Mahler’s music seems to mark the history of my own coming of age as much as it did his own life.